The Economic and Social Councils (ESCs) will be at the forefront of democratic participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe, without which any reform will be doomed to fail: this was the point made repeatedly by a number of leading French and European politicians in a videoconference between Paris and Brussels on 9 September.
Staged jointly by the European Economic and Social Committee and the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council, the event was entitled "The Conference on the Future of Europe and the role of Economic and Social Councils".
In his opening speech, Luca Jahier, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, spoke of the changed circumstances in which the Conference on the Future of Europe would now be taking place, following the COVID-19 crisis and the historic consensus Europe had reached to respond to it.
Mr Jahier stressed that the ESCs, which had seen their role bolstered in the crisis (unlike in the 2008 crisis, which had left them weaker), should not be confined to a merely token involvement in the conference proceedings but should actively contribute to it with tangible proposals.
"The pandemic has further highlighted the need for urgent and vigorous responses in the economic and social spheres," he noted. "The ESCs and the EESC know very well the business world and the social and societal realities. It is entirely legitimate for them, therefore, to put forward proposals for the economic, social and environmental model of tomorrow. There is no way that civil society, which has always supported the European project, will not be a part of what Ursula von der Leyen has called 'Europe's moment'."
Closing the videoconference, Patrick Bernasconi, president of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council, said his organisation was fully prepared to join its counterparts in examining ways to replicate at European level the success of his own country's climate convention (Convention sur le climat).
"I am convinced", he assured participants, "that we shall dilute the mistrust that has built up in our democracies by involving our fellow citizens in making decisions on public matters. And the Economic and Social Councils are a particularly fitting place for this: because an ESC is an institutional forum; it is the link between citizens and public authorities."
Clément Beaune, the French government’s minister of state for European affairs, highlighted the potential for the French ESEC's Convention on Climate Change to remodel how democracy works.
“You have proven", he said, "that you can be very receptive to new debates, to citizens, very open, on issues that are of concern to all of us in Europe. And that is exactly the spirit of this conference. You, the French ESEC and other European ESCs, are better placed than anyone to organise and put together the citizens’ panels that, I believe, must be the conference's trade mark. At a time when we are still reorganising your ranks in France, I think you will be – you must be – at the heart of this European exercise that is about to begin."
Klára Dobrev, vice-president of the European Parliament, spoke of the need to avoid the mistakes of the past, in particular the failure of the referenda on the draft European Constitution, which she put down to a debate focused too narrowly on institutional matters.
The focus this time had to be on the concerns of the European public (migration, climate, economy and now, according to a 2019 Eurobarometer, health) – without, however, losing sight of the institutional issues, because these were inseparable: for example, Europe’s inability to make its mark on the international political scene and the unduly large role of unanimity in the decisions of the Council of the EU.
How could this be achieved? It was, said Ms Dobrev, in real pragmatic thinking that ESCs could be crucial partners: "You are the closest to the citizens we want to get involved in this debate. Don't leave the job just to us, the Parliament, the Commission and the Council. Be as active as possible, get all the political levels on board, all stakeholders – civil society, employers, trade unions. I can't tell you how. You know better than anyone who you should be talking to, and what about, what questions to ask.
Enrico Letta, president of the Jacques Delors Institute and dean of the École des affaires internationales de Sciences Po Paris, noted that the conference was starting in more conducive circumstances than when President Emmanuel Macron had launched the idea in March 2019. The COVID-19 crisis had again made Europe the focus of discussions, expectations and aspirations. Now we had to work to ensure that people no longer had the impression of having no influence over Europe, even though it had an impact on their lives, businesses and jobs.
Identifying the ESCs as one of the best channels for civic participation alongside the European Parliament and direct democracy, Mr Letta listed five strands – including the first three from the discussions at the Delors Institute – on which the conference should work:
- This openness to outside participation had to be standardised and specific;
- The conference had to work with a core aim and concrete proposals;
- It should keep its language simple;
- It should not stop at what was "politically correct": if we had stopped at what was "politically correct", we should not have had the leaps forward that would be at the centre of Next GenerationEU;
- Europe's young people had to be able to identify with it, because they were Europe's future.
In a video message to the conference, Dubravka Šuica, Commission vice-president responsible for democracy and demography, encouraged the ESCs to crack on and start preparing their contribution without waiting for the conference's official launch.
The discussion was part of the Annual meeting of the Presidents and Secretaries-General of EU Economic and Social Councils, held from 3 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. on 9 September under the title "The challenges of contemporary participatory democracy in a Europe that is rebuilding itself: an initial contribution from the economic and social councils and similar institutions to the Conference on the Future of Europe". Organised by the French ESEC and originally slated to take place in Paris, the event had to be held as a videoconference due to COVID-19-related health measures.
The conclusions of the annual meeting of the Economic and Social Councils will be sent to the presidents of the European institutions and to the national governments.
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